A Mags-ified Finland: Guest Post!

Sound bite:

Why does your nose run so much in the cold?

In the cold, your nose works like a radiator. To keep your nose warm, your body increases blood flow to your nose and the blood vessels expand so that as much warm blood as possible pumps through your nose. 92% of blood is water and because of all that extra blood flowing under the skin-surface of your nose, the water starts to drip out of your nose. The minute you go inside your nose warms up, the blood vessels contract and your nose will stop dripping. This mechanism is astoundingly reliable. In the cold, your nose works like a leaky radiator.

Visiting Kim in Finland

name pointing

[It’s official when your name is listed among all the other apartments]

standing on the arctic circle

[Kim standing on the Arctic Circle Boundary just north of Rovaniemi]

My first impression of Helsinki was white. The city is not. But stepping into the airport is a bit like I imagine the approach to heaven’s white pearly gates. The airport gleams. Until the image is shattered by a large ad for the ‘Lapplication – The ultimate App for your Lapland adventure’.

On the bus from the airport into Helsinki city-centre I was overwhelmed by a sense of familiarity. Memories of Estonia came flooding back to me. In Tallinn, in 1998, Finnish department stores were among a handful of those that resembled ‘western style’ shops: Sokos, Seppala, Stockmann’s. At the same time long forgotten snippets of Estonian were working their way to the front of my mind. ‘Tervetuloa’ in Finnish is ‘Tere Tulemast’ in Estonian (welcome), ‘Yksi, Kaksi, Kolme,…’ in Finnish is ‘Üks, Kaks, Kolm,…’ in Estonian (one, two, three,…). Other words are similar too – Kala for fish, Kana for chicken, Muna for egg.

Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian are part of the Finno-Ugric languages which include Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian as well as the Saami languages. Finnish and Estonian certainly share similarities but I remember, as a 13 year old, that my background in Estonian only allowed me the most basic interpretation of Finnish, limited mainly to food, counting and greetings. At the time I was very satisfied with this – these are really the most essential things, no? But similarities to Hungarian??? I have always wondered about this one. Wikipedia, the authority on all random curiosity, informs me that the divergence of the Finnish and Ugric languages is very ancient and their common ancestry is controversial. Although, my analysis of food related similarities was accurate. Again, according to Wikipedia : ‘Vocabulary common to the Finno-Ugric languages includes … at least 55 words related to fishing, 33 related to hunting and eating animals, 12 related to reindeer, 17 related to plant foods, ….’

I was intrigued to also learn of the linguistic link between Finnish and Saami, the language spoken by the indigenous, previously nomadic, reindeer herders across Lapland and into Russia. Kim and I went on a reindeer sleigh ride in Utsjoki, near her field station, with Erik Eetu, a reindeer herder who is trying to expand his business to include tourism. We sat wrapped in reindeer skins and wool blankets, being pulled through the dark night. Leipas was the lead reindeer and he kept stopping to dig for lichen.

reindeer digging[This is what is looks like when a reindeer digs a hole to eat]

Erik told us he has tried to put Leipas at the back of a reindeer sleigh caravan but he is the leader. (Who knew all the reindeer politics Santa must have to deal with … but I shouldn’t be surprised, Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer is pretty explicit about the bullying and popularity contests that govern life in a reindeer corral).  Leipas is impossible to have at the back; he will just stop to eat, regardless of what is going on ahead of him. In fact his name – Leipas – is testament to his unstoppable hunger. Leipas loves to eat bread. Leipas is Saami for bread, Finnish ‘Leipä’, Estonian ‘Leib’. This, incidentally, is related to the German word ‘Laib’ which refers to ‘Ein laib Brot’ – a loaf of bread. A homonym with the German word Leib: your physical being. Bread = corporal sustenance! I love languages! And bread.

kim feeding reindeer[This is what it looks like when Kim feeds a reindeer kibble and bread]

With Leipas leading us, Chandragas was the second puller. Whoever sat in the front sled got hot, steamy reindeer breath on the back of their neck. Reindeer breath does not smell. At all. Must be all the birch twigs and lichen they eat.

kim and chandrigas[Kim and Chandragas]

And, from both sleds a wonderful view of reindeer rump, snow-covered darkness and green swirls of the aurora borealis overhead; like green food dye being stirred into a glass of milk.

reindeer rump[Reindeer rump]

Our destination was a laavu – a traditional Saami teepee-like tent or lean-to shelter in which you can warm up and rest. There are laavus scattered along hiking and cross-country skiing trails, each with a supply of dry firewood provided for your convenience. Brilliant system. In the middle you make a fire. Erik’s laavu was luxurious: around the edge were piles of dried birch branches covered with reindeer skin to make a comfy, insulated sofa. Erik looked after us well. While we plied him with questions about speaking Saami, herding, corralling and slaughtering reindeer, preventing overgrazing, he fed us sausages roasted on a stick served with traditional ketchup and pots of tea. Outside Chandragas rested and Leipas dug for lichen. Erik keeps the reindeer out of this area so the lichen cover is thick and delicious – hence Leipas’ voracious appetite.

Erik was great! And he wants more tourists. They have very few from England and the US. So next time you find yourself in Kevo, look for Erik Eetu and his reindeer Leipas and Chandragas. He also wears fantastic traditional dress – a blue wool cape, reindeer fur boots (which he made), woven shoelaces. Stupid of me, but I was not expecting to actually see someone dressed this way. He looked like he had stepped out of a museum.

mags and kevo hand kim and kevo hand[Bus stop at Kevo. Stick out red-gloved hand to flag down bus]

On our way home we stopped at a bar in which Kim wanted to show me the bar art – felted landscapes of scenery, plants and animal. We ordered a reindeer pizza (yes, evil) and I got an alcohol-free beer. Not intentionally. Serves me right for ordering the beer I have never heard of before. Should have gone with Stella? But hey, you never know.

poron pizza non-alcoholic beer[Reindeer pizza and Nikolai]

The reindeer pizza was good – but not anywhere near as good as Kim’s karistys. Reindeer stew with lingon berries and mashed potato. Kim and Brandon are aspiring butchers and bought half a reindeer at the end of last year. Now Kim has multiple cuts of it in her freezer.

Kim's karistys[Kim’s amazing karistys]

Reindeer are a point of national Finnish pride. The reindeer is everywhere: wandering through the forest, crossing roads and cross-country ski tracks. They are not just an accessory in Santa’s Christmas Village. All parts of the reindeer have a use, meat and milk to eat, the hide for clothing and coverings, the bone and antler for tools or jewelry, the sinew and tendon for sewing. While I was doing fieldwork in Barrow, AK one year I took a workshop on reindeer sinew – how to extract and prepare it. The best stuff is in the legs and runs from the knee to the toes. It gives you a really long fibre.

AK reindeer sinew 1

AK reindeer sinew 3 AK reindeer sinew 2AK reindeer sinew 4[Reindeer sinew workshop in Barrow, AK]

In Alaska they call them caribou, but they are the same species: Rangifer tarandus. There was recently a piece about the history of reindeer in Alaska in the December 2012 issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. The name caribou comes from the Alongquin word Kaliboo and means ‘snow scraper’. The difference between reindeer and caribou is mainly that in Europe reindeer are domesticated. Apparently at the end of the 19th century a missionary brought a herd of reindeer to Alaska, along with their Saami herders!! Together they set up routes to deliver mail between Alaskan coastal towns. But it didn’t last very long. Or is that where Santa comes in? Here in Finland reindeer pulling things is still avidly supported for both utility and sport. I am sure Kim will make it to a reindeer sled race and when she does, I can’t wait to hear about it, here!

This looks like madness, but fun.

reindeer skiing[Also stolen]

In cities Poro (reindeer) is honoured more abstractly, in art, street names (Poromiehentie – way of the reindeer) or city planning designs. One of Kim’s Fulbright friends did a very interesting piece on reindeer husbandry.

library statues[Reindeer outside Rovaniemi kirjasto (library)]

rovaniemi plan[Original Design for Reindeer Antler Layout of Rovaniemi; tilt your head to the left and try to see it]

The Finns also have a special place in their heart for Owls – a symbol of calm and wisdom. The Finnish rail company has adopted an owl as their mascot. Look at the bedsheets in their sleeper cabin:

VR sheets[Kim & VR owl sheets]

Berries are another deep and great love. You might remember Kim’s post on the trials and tribulations of summer berry gathering.

I was lucky enough to try her lingonberry-curd (think lemon-curd with but lingonberries) – delish!! If I had to come up with smells and tastes for Finland one of them would be berry. Not only are berry jams, compotes, pies, yogurts, ice-cream and liqueurs very popular but berry-flavoured tea is a big hit. If I was here long enough I would either grow to love it or it would turn me into a coffee drinker, not quite sure which. But when you brew any of the berry teas, leave and come back into the room, it smells like you have stepped into a candy-factory. I found a box of Muumin character tea – ‘Muumin family magic potion’ and ‘Go for it’ – berry flavoured, of course, but also highly motivating for dissertation writing. And great for keeping you warm in the field.

tea bags[Muumin Mamma’s Magic Potion and Tsemppiä, Go for it!!]

thermos family[Kim’s thermos family]

If I had to sum Finland up in smells it would be berry tea and cardamom. Cardamom is a bit like cinnamon in the states. You walk into cafes, bus stations, bakeries and cardamom wafts through the air. It’s a crucial ingredient in pulla – a sweet bread roll with either sugar crystals, cinnamon sugar or a cream-cheese like topping. Again, Kim makes a killer version.

~~~~~~~~~~~~The Aurora Borealis~~~~~~~~~~~~

One of the things that Finland has made me appreciate in a different way is light. It makes sense that in a place where, for long parts of the year, there is very little light, people think of creative ways to bring more light into their lives. Light and colour.

Waiting for the tram in Helsinki one night, we were left in the cold by a disco tram. It’s one of several city art installations.

lux tram[I was too cold to take a picture. I had to steal it.]

Some of the installations had sound, some of them moved. All of them drew a crowd. Blues, greens, pinks, purples and reds.

little spirits[this one is called Little Spirits]

reverse lightning[also Little Spirits, but looks like reverse lightning strikes]

senate square lights[light and sound show projected onto Helsinki Cathedral on Senate Square, Senaatintori]

light beam[and a beam of light across the city, reminds me of the Mothership in Independence Day]

Much further north, in Rovaniemi, the landscape is white. The air is quiet and each tree is shrouded in white.

rovaniemi snowshoeing hut[Forest from the top of an outlook tower, Rovaniemi]

After a week in Rovaniemi I began to realize the inspiration for the lights in Helsinki. Blue, green, pink, purple and red. They are the colours of the day. In the late morning the sun would rise casting the sky in pink and orange. Drifting across the horizon, golden light glints through the trees and reflects off the buildings. Kim says it is like looking at the world through a cup of tea. The tops of the trees are ‘tea tops’.

lunchtime snowshoeing[Snowshoeing near Rovaniemi, around lunchtime]

Just as I get used to the sun it dips again taking the sky through a full spectrum of colour. The gold mellows to orange and then slowly fades to pink, to purple, to indigo. The sky is like a rainbow, one full cycle from sunrise to sunset. And when I comment everyone speaks of the purple hours. The times in winter when the sun never really rises and the night sky briefly lightens to blue and purple light. I am too late in the season for the purple hours, but they sound magical.

2 pm snowshoeing[probably about 2pm]

best chance at indigo[the best I could do to capture some purple]

Further north still, to Kevo. Kim pointed out the direction in which the Aurora Borealis is often visible. One evening I looked, and I saw nothing. I told Kim that there were none, the only thing I could see was the glow of the city off in the distance. She looked at me strangely. There are no cities that big up here! Those are the northern lights. I was skeptical, it was not what I had imagined, but she’s the expert. I went back to watch – and slowly they began to move and send a few streaks up across the sky. It was incredible, like a pulse. Like a dance. But it was not what I expected. They were faint and hard to see. There would be nothing and then suddenly a quick burst of green. And the whole time a glow on the horizon.

northern lights attempt[I tried to get a picture. You laugh, but switch of ALL the lights, view it as a full screen and look at the very bottom of the image]

The next night I looked again. And the glow on the horizon was not there. Obviously not a city. Now I really believed it.

And an hour later – much more activity than the night before. Swirling green tracks across the sky. It is impossible to describe. I am not surprised that ancient legends of spirits and shamanic powers were spun to make sense of this awe-inspiring phenomenon.

Hopefully I am forgiven for insulting the Aurora Borealis by mistaking its’ distant glow for light pollution.

My stay in Finland was great. I saw what it looks like when reindeer digs a hole for lichen. And, here is what it looks like when Kim & Esa dig a hole for methane:

field 1field 2field 3field 4field 5field 6field 7field 8field 9field 10field 11field 12It feels like I lived a whole ‘nother life. A new language, new people, cross-country skiis and the world in a totally different colour. Quite literally. It was interesting, it was fun, it was inspiring and productive too. Kim was an excellent Finnish tutor and a wealth of information on thriftstores, Finnish soap-operas, baked goods and places to find free public toilets. I feel extremely fortunate that this little escapade was possible.

snow flakes[Why is it so difficult to get photos of ice crystals when they are so damn cool?]

One thought on “A Mags-ified Finland: Guest Post!

  1. Loved my trip ..up to Rovaniemmi….. through your words and photos. Was thrilled this past summer to fly into Helsinki en route to Japan. Saw only the airport. This completes the journey…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *